Former Humber College of Music student Mark Kelso is a Belfast-born boy who has made Toronto his home for many years. Over the years, he has built a reputation around his ability to be a musical chameleon who has worked with artists such as John Pizzarelli, Bonnie Raitt, Shania Twain, Ian Tyson, and Gino Vannelli. Bill King caught up with Mark recently for 'A Conversation with...'
Bill King: Superstar drummer Steve Gadd played on 10,000 and you’re only at 260 recordings?
Mark Kelso: Something like that.
B.K: Gadd played three sessions a day – right?
M.K: It was non-stop. I remember the guys from Modern Drummer having to interview him at like four o’clock in the morning, the only time he was free.
B.K: Have you ever made triple scale?
M.K: I don’t think I’ve ever made triple scale on anything. I heard an orchestra had hired him in London – there’s no Steve and they called his house in New York and asked, “Steve, were are you? We’ve got a sixty-five piece orchestra.” Gadd pauses, “Sorry, I forgot – I’ll be there tomorrow.”
B.K: Some of these high end session guys have secretaries or management to schedule and guide them to the studios.
M.K: In the eighties they’d just have an agent who would hire them, organize and get their bookings together. It was so chaotic they couldn’t control themselves.
B.K: Everything carted and set-up?
M.K: Those are the dream gigs. I’ve had a few of those. I use Rob Ball from Groove Moves who comes and collects my gear, transports and sets-up. He’s such a great guy. I don’t have to worry about hurting my back or arms and after I’m done he tears down and returns to me.
B.K: You were born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. How old were you when you came here?
M.K: (With Irish accent) Bill, I was nine years old when I came from Belfast.
B.K: You still talk about that. Those were years of big conflict.
M.K: It was 1969-1970, the rise of big troubles.
B.K.: You remember much?
M.K: I have a very vivid collection of memories. I learned how to take a machine gun apart when I was eight years old. You wonder, how does this happen? My babysitter’s boyfriend was in the British military and one time when she was babysitting me – first, my parents came home and saw this big military truck parked outside. We lived in one of the first mixed areas where Protestants and Catholics lived. My parents freaked out. The woman’s boyfriend was in the military and came over with his buddies and was just hanging out talking and I was dressed in a red beret and flak jacket and I remember a guy showing me how to take a machine gun apart.
It wasn’t long after that dad decided we were done with this. During that time people were either immigrating to Australia, South Africa or Canada. My dad had been to Australia and liked both — but South Africa and Australia were really too far away. So he thought we’d go to Canada, it’s not that far. If we don’t like it we can come back. That’s the Irish way of thinking.
B.K: Your dad was a musician too?
M.K: My dad was a drummer and singer who played in an Irish show band with the Witnesses and the singer in that band was actually Colm Wilkinson from Phantom of the Opera.
B.K: Dear dad played Muskoka a lot didn’t he?
M.K: He was at Deerhurst through all the Shania Twain days. I knew her as Eileen when I went up there.
B.K: You spent a lot of time there.
M.K: Yes, whenever I had a break. It was beautiful and I remember watching her sing before she was famous.
B.K: Big hair and all?
M.K: Eighties, nineties – I had big hair too.
B.K: Dad was a drummer so I assume you hung near his kit.
M.K: I grew up around music and musicians. Dad always tells this story about me when I was three or four when he was rehearsing with a band and I was there and talking over something when suddenly he heard drums – something played on the ride cymbal and he thought – sounds like he’s in time. Dad stopped the tune and changed tunes and had them play in ¾ and said I stopped and noticed the time difference and began accenting the three. Dad was like, “Yes, my boy! He’s got the fever, he’s got the thing.”
We were on the road with my dad’s band through the states. I’d change schools, must have been around twelve years old. I told him I wanted to play drums and he started teaching me during the day in all of the hotels. He saw I was burning through everything he was showing me – then pushed too hard too fast and then I quit. A year later when we returned to Toronto I told dad I’m in band at school. He was relieved. You have to think most parents don’t want their kids go into music.
I started and told dad I was playing saxophone in concert band. He said, “What?” But I’m auditioning for stage band on drums next week. I got that job and that was it. As soon as I was playing drums in school that was it – no turning back. At thirteen I pretty much decided I was doing this the rest of my life.
B.K: You are a guy who plays everything and considers everything when called. In fact, you will take whatever charts are handed you and fix – make notations, make them better.
M.K: I like to make things easy on myself. I’m a free-lancer. In the course of a year I could play with at least forty different bands. A good sixty to seventy per cent of that stuff is original music. If you are playing that gig once or twice a year there’s a big long gap. I make a lot of notes on a chart so when I go in I’m almost sight reading and remembering at the same time. I do that so I’m at ninety-five to hundred per cent accuracy and perfection. I don’t want to go in and sound bad. That’s not my nature.
B.K: I have my trove of stashed charts in basement and I can recognize your markings. Every four bars is numbered and marked. The next drummer will have no issues.
M.K: As much as I like reading charts I don’t want to have my head buried in them. I’m a big believer in looking at other musicians on stage for the vibe. If everyone is looking around and smiling and having a great time people see that – they see Mark is having a great time. It relaxes people and they get into it more.I remember the great jazz drummer Jeff Hamilton (Diana Krall) coming to Humber College and playing with the faculty group. He says, “Guys, I have one request.” He says, “Look at me. I want to see your smiling faces.” It’s communication. If you aren’t looking at people then it’s a different format. With eye contact there’s a deeper connection. I’ve played with some big name people at Humber and when John Scofield turns around and looks at me and smiles and says, “Yeah, happening,” I know this is going good. A Mike Stern or Pat Metheny looks over and smiles at you, it makes you feel good and want to do more.
B.K: Your new group is called Jazz Exiles.
M.K: Robi Botos keyboards, Rich Brown bass, Luis Deniz saxophone and Joey Martel from Humber.
B.K: Are these all your compositions?
M.K: I wrote everything.
B.K: You sat down and thought up something difficult to play and then decided to amp it up to “overly difficult?”
M.K: I’m a frustrated bass player and I sing all of these crazy lines in my head then sing into my phone. I plug it in and find on keyboard then drums. I’d work harmony around it then start singing melodies. I write everything out. It’s the hardest part and naming chords – away treacherous. We never thought we’d have to do this stuff twenty – thirty years ago. Now we have to be computer experts. You have to know how to use Photoshop – learn how to make posters. You have to teach yourself everything. It’s unbelievable the amount of work you have to do.
B.K: You have to know everything.
M.K: I have a full time career playing drums. I have a full time teaching career running the drum department at Humber College and I run a home studio that fills in the gaps in between and a wife and two small kids. It’s serious time management.
B.K: What’s with this contacting another musician for a gig and five days later they respond?
M.K: I don’t know why and how they do it. It’s frustrating as anything, I need to know ASAP. You are contacting on Facebook, email – where can I get you, I need an answer. Being a bandleader is ten times the work. Being a sideman is easy.
B.K: Remember Crescendo – the newsletter from the Toronto Musicians Association. Years back they used to post the unfair list – those that rarely paid up? The same names stayed there for years.
M.K: They would still be working and hiring people. I’ve been on those gigs where you have to wait and wait to hunt down leaders for payment. It doesn’t really happen as much anymore. I pay people right away.
B.K: Go back twenty years it was usually two weeks out. Long before instant banking and that check had to clear.
M.K: Money transfer is the greatest invention ever!
B.K: Here’s a list of artists you have worked for: Gino Vannelli, Pete Townshend, Michael Buble, Holly Cole – you even sang a duet with her ,“Baby it’s Cold Outside,” Amy Sky, Randy Brecker, Michael Brecker, Donnie Osmond (Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat – the pit band) , David Grusin, Shirley Eikhard, Hilario Duran etc. Let’s stop right there. You learned to really play Latin music none of this fake nonsense.
M.K: It all began at Humber College with Memo Acevedo. He played a lot of Brazilian music and Cuban things and I said, “What is that – that’s awesome.” That began my love for both. Brazilian music I found easier to learn but the Cuban music much more difficult. I was playing with bands but when I got with Cubans I found it to be very different. I really had to delve into that feel and that feel is a combination of a 4/4 feel combined with an African 6/8 feel. The Cubans sort of slip and slide between both feels. It gives it this sort of a suspended feel that is very, very complex to understand. When you get inside that it makes the music feel unbelievable. I went to Cuba and studied with this great tumbao, Changuito and he destroyed my brain. One of the things I’ve learned through my career is you must respect the music to be really successful. I don’t want to sound like a guy who sort of knows music. It’s a vast deep cultural thing.
Funk drumming with Mark Kelso
Holly Cole and Mark Kelso singing duet on "Baby It’s Cold Outside"